Grandparenting: Shopping Strategies

Photography Paul Alexander

Given the choice of shopping by myself or stickhandling my grandchildren’s idiosyncrasies and whereabouts in a store, I’ll choose shopping alone every time. Taking all three of them for a loaf of bread or a bunch of broccoli always turns into a much more involved, sometimes cranky and definitely more expensive outing, with bags of snacks and candy added to the checkout counter.

Going to a mall with grandchildren fills me with even more dread with the plethora of stores offering toys, electronics and the latest in sports gear, nifty neon sports shoes and fashionable hoodies. It’s not that they need any of it. It doesn’t matter whether their clothes come from Old Navy or Abercrombie & Fitch; they have lots of clothes. They also have cellphones, iPods and iPads as soon as they’re old enough to punch in numbers or send a text. Television ads, especially at this time of year, entice them with new toys and electronics. And busy parents often give too much, perhaps to assuage the guilt of being at work long hours. The sense of entitlement is sometimes out of control, especially with a besotted grandparent in tow.

But gift shopping, especially if it happens to be for a birthday or during the holidays, can be much more pleasurable. It’s a joy when children are mature enough to appreciate the spirit of gift giving. For children, gift giving is an act of love. Eight-year-old Finley is always wrapping up one of his toys (or his mother’s new lip gloss) in gift paper, secured with a sticky mound of tape and a handwritten note with pictures and hearts to display his feelings for people in his family, his friends or his teacher.

The best place to take children shopping is a dollar store. It’s important that they have their own money and enough to pay the HST. This way, they learn about budgeting for each gift and making choices. To make the outing well organized, writing out a list of the people they are buying gifts for is a good idea. It’s much easier to take one child at a time, but that’s often a luxury, so with two or more, it’s important to make sure each child has a turn in choosing a gift for mom or dad.

I’ve tried to impose my own thoughts on gifts when shopping with grandchildren, but there is something to be said for their own choices. They have usually thought ahead about the kind of gift they want to buy and they take their opinions very seriously. In fact, buying their own gifts may signal a reversal in their attitude. It may not diminish the thrill of the gifts they receive, but they will enjoy a certain level of delight at watching someone open the gift they have chosen. The brass swan vase (I still have the one my son bought me when he was seven) or the painting of flowers on black velvet (like the one my daughters gave me at about the same age) may not match the taste of the recipient, but everyone needs a surreptitious chuckle on Christmas morning.

My friends, Gerald and Frances of Medicine Hat, Alta., take all four grandchildren gift shopping every December. “We make it a wonderful tradition, starting with breakfast out, and then we hit the stores with the kids,” says Frances. “They look forward to it every year, and I think the important part of the shopping is just having that special time together,” she says. “It gives their parents a break too.” Gerald and Frances advise being armed with lots of patience and a sense of humour.

Greg in Burlington, Ont., has a different approach to shopping with his grandchildren. They make a tradition of shopping online together but with a twist. “We always buy gifts for family members at World Vision,” Greg explains. “Last year, we bought farm animals, soccer balls and school supplies for kids in places such as Africa and Guatemala for my grandkids’ family members and teachers. I think it’s important that my grandkids learn about the needs of others and appreciate their own good fortune at this time of year.”

Advice for those shopping with grandchildren: get a good night’s sleep beforehand, wear comfortable shoes and make sure the wine is chilling in the fridge back at home.